Deleted data drives new data breaches

Cyber criminals are beginning to use digital forensics to retrieve sensitive information from computers

According to a new report on data breaches from Verizon Business, cyber criminals are no longer attacking where the credit card files are, but where they once were.

"Criminals are borrowing from digital forensics tools," said Bryan Sartan, director of investigative response for Verizon Business Security Solutions. He said criminals are now able to read deleted transaction data from unallocated disk space and from the pagefile, and he attributed some of that to businesses retrofitting or upgrading software on older payment appliances to be compliant with payment card industry regulations. "New software, old data."

Last year Verizon Business released a massive four-year study on data breaches. Although this year's report covers only one year the volume is nonetheless staggering: 285 million compromised records from 90 confirmed data breaches in 2008.

Sartan was unable to name the specific organizations investigated for this report, but he did say that last year targeted attacks against financial institutions rose sharply to 30 percent, just behind retail at 31 percent. He said targeted attacks, where the criminals knew what they wanted, had gone up in part because prices for credit card information on the black market had gone down. Knowing the data came from a financial institution increases its value, he said.

Ninety-nine percent of the records breached were from compromised servers and applications. Of those, 67 percent of the breaches were aided by significant configuration errors. Sixty-four percent of the breaches were the result of hacking. While SQL injection remained high as a means of attack, Sartan said the overall SQL numbers were on the decline.

Seventy four percent of the breaches were from outside sources, dispelling the idea that data breaches were largely the work of insiders. According to the report, IP addresses associated with external attacks came from Eastern Europe (22 percent), East Asia (18 percent) and North America (15 percent).

Thirty-nine percent of the breaches involved multiple parties, where a software flaw used at one company lead it being used against another company. "(The) attacker exploits Software X at Brand A Stores and later learns that Brand B Stores also runs Software X. An attack is then directed at Brand B Stores but only because of a known exploitable weakness."

Behind all this data is the fact that organized crime, not the lone criminal hacker, has the resources and patience to carry out these attacks. Sartan said that scraping credit data from volatile memory or reading deleted data takes a bit of technical sophistication. He said Verizon Business has found that software used in the breaches is often unique, specific to the targeted organization.

The full 2009 Data Breach Investigations report is available on the Verizon Business site.

Robert Vamosi is a freelance computer security writer specializing in covering criminal hackers and malware threats.

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